Sheep in Lake County, California, Spring 2019 [Photo by the Author]
(Image by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume) Details DMCA
The English language contains hundreds of idioms that mention animals: ants in your pants, bull in a china shop, clam up, fish out of water, free as a bird, the lion's den, like a moth to a flame, playing possum, quick as a bunny, squirrel away, stir up the hornet nest, strong as an ox, and many many more.
These examples are innocuous, but many evocations of animals are not, and that's my focus here.
Talking politics often includes unfavorable characterizations of one's adversaries and using animals to insult humans is very common in this context, both online and IRL. But this is neither fair nor accurate, and I often find myself tacking on a comment to that effect, such as: "Describing Republicans as rats is insulting to rats" or "Calling cops pigs slanders pigs."
Rats are communal creatures who help take care of each other. Pigs are highly intelligent, with some scientists ranking them fourth smartest in the world, close behind dolphins and apes, and before cats and dogs. They are also clean and highly social. Neither one acts with the malevolent intent of either politicians or policemen. Instead of dragging these animals into the discussion, people should cut to the chase and say: corrupt, cruel, dirty-dealing, forceful, greedy, maniacal, rapacious, two-faced, vicious and unethical.
I extend my defense to the so-called "lower" animals as well.
For example, when Trump's election emboldened some racists to express themselves more openly in public, many commentators compared this to turning over a rock and revealing the creepy-crawly things underneath. In response to one instance, I wrote:
I protest that simile; the creepy-crawly things who live under rocks are simply some of nature's creatures, living their own lives, and are neither malicious nor self-hating like human bigots. The comparison insults the poor, innocent Arthropods and Annelids.
Another time, I even came to the defense of pond scum:
I agree with your train of thought here. But calling them "scum" runs the risk of insulting photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms that live on the surface of ponds and who are entirely innocent of the crimes you describe.
Writer Upton Sinclair famously declared that "the two political parties are two wings of the same bird of prey." While this image is useful for illustrating the reality of partisan life in the USA, it denigrates hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and shrikes, among others. None of those birds are like the Republican and Democratic leadership, which is to say: deceitful, dishonest, fraudulent, guileful, perfidious, shifty, swindling, thieving and unscrupulous. "Two sides of the same coin" is more accurate.
We must ask: are predators in nature villains in the same way that politicians are in society? I would say not. In nature, predator and prey are both simply roles that are played by different creatures at various times and they are neither good nor bad; these are just the facts of life. In society, by contrast, the treatment of the poor by the rich, for example, is oppression, and is definitely unjust. A hawk catching mice is neither a good guy or bad a guy, but the general ordering the bombing of a village is evil. Calling the general a "hawk" is not only inaccurate, but it cuts slack for the military man, implying that he is somehow acting in accordance with nature. He is not. His is the behavior of civilized humanity, and we've all got to acknowledge that.
The unspoken assumption behind most animal insults is that animals are inferior to humans. So, treating someone "like an animal" is cruel and calling them "an animal" is disrespectful. But that's just anthropocentrism, which is some bullshit cultural baggage, not the actual state of the world.
"Human supremacy" is a term we should use more often, as it describes a real thing with myriad consequences. In his book, "The Myth of Human Supremacy," author Derrick Jensen dismantles the concept quite effectively, revealing it for the set of irrational prejudices that it is.
As Jensen and others have pointed out, this is not merely a philosophical issue. Our elevation of ourselves above all other creatures has resulted in material consequences: animal and plant extinctions, decimated ecosystems, pollution of the atmosphere and oceans, all of it on a massive scale. We are threatening to render the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, perhaps abruptly. But even if we survive, it is already too late for many species and places.
A lot of people think it's scientific to consider animals "lower" on some theoretical ladder than ourselves, but that's actually a religious concept left over from the Bronze Age that we've never shaken. The book of Genesis which spawned Judaism, Christianity and Islam declares that humans have "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth." But like we use to say in the '90s: "That's some whack sh*t." Furthermore, the contemporary social demographic that describes itself as "skeptical" is, pathetically, often no more than Victorianism with a 21st Century gloss; i.e., anthropocentrism ornamented with post-modernism. Which is to say, still dishing out the same crap.